stuff I read

Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency by Bea Koch

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Summary from Goodreads:
Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond the Ton and Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history — until now.

Regency England is a world immortalized by Jane Austen and Lord Byron in their beloved novels and poems. The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels set in the period, which focus almost exclusively on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes. But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don’t fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father’s family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother’s assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own, Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall, and Judith Montefiore, a Jewish woman who wrote the first English language Kosher cookbook.

As one of the owners of the successful romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, Bea Koch has had a front row seat to controversies surrounding what is accepted as “historically accurate” for the wildly popular Regency period. Following in the popular footsteps of books like Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History, Koch takes the Regency, one of the most loved and idealized historical time periods and a huge inspiration for American pop culture, and reveals the independent-minded, standard-breaking real historical women who lived life on their terms. She also examines broader questions of culture in chapters that focus on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, the lives of women of color in the Regency, and women who broke barriers in fields like astronomy and paleontology. In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.

Mad & Bad is a fun overview of women bucking accepted norms during the Regency and surrounding eras. Now, I have a pretty strong background in feminist history from this time period, so this book doesn’t dig deep enough for me. I’m also a Regency nerd. I know who the Patronesses of Almack’s are and what their foibles were (I even have a WIP where they appear – don’t get excited, it’s still only four chapters long), Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane covers the non-Jane Austen writers of this period in depth, I’m a female scientist so Caroline Hershel, Mary Somerville, and Mary Anning are not new to me, I’ve read Anne Lister’s biography by Anne Choma, and Sarah Siddons and her follow actresses thread their way through theatre books I’ve read. So for me, much of this book is just a review.

But if you are less well-versed in this period of history, particularly women’s history, this book is a great entry to the period. I could really feel where this book pushed back hard against the people who complain about “revisionist” or “politically correct” historical romance novels that include women of color, queer women and nonbinary people, and working women – and if you are one of the people whining about “political correctness” you should probably pipe down and read Mad & Bad. The point here is that these people have always existed and were gradually erased as historical romance codified itself into an exclusionary world of cis-het, gender-conforming white women in ballrooms (I love me a Georgette Heyer romance, but she definitely has some issues). Koch’s writing is fun and poppy and quippy and it reads very well. It would also make a great book for a teen interested in history.

The one thing I would definitely change is to pull Princess Caraboo out of the chapter about women of color as a major figure. She is interesting, particularly in the aristocracy’s response to a “foreign” princess, but doesn’t fit very well into a chapter about women of color who didn’t have the privilege of passing as white. Put another woman of color in her place – because there are only two Black women profiled in the chapter, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Mary Seacole, then Caraboo – and maybe footnote Caraboo at the end of the chapter about the Ton.

Mad & Bad is out today, September 1!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady

Summary from Goodreads: The definitive history of the dynasty that dominated Europe for centuries

In The Habsburgs, Martyn Rady tells the epic story of a dynasty and the world they built — and then lost — over nearly a millennium. From modest origins, the Habsburgs gained control of the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth century. Then, in just a few decades, their possessions rapidly expanded to take in a large part of Europe, stretching from Hungary to Spain, and parts of the New World and the Far East. The Habsburgs continued to dominate Central Europe through the First World War.

Historians often depict the Habsburgs as leaders of a ramshackle empire. But Rady reveals their enduring power, driven by the belief that they were destined to rule the world as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church, guarantors of peace, and patrons of learning. The Habsburgs is the definitive history of a remarkable dynasty that forever changed Europe and the world.

The Habsburgs was a pretty readable work of history. I was interested in reading this new book about the Habsburgs – I’ve had a mild interest ever since I visited Austria because that family has history all over Europe – and wanted to compare it with a much older book I read by Andrew Wheatcroft The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire since there are thirty years of change in how we write about history between the two.

What I remember from reading the Wheatcroft is that it really pays a lot of attention to biographical detail about the individual members of the Habsburg family, so that you can really see how the family spread out and intermarried (wow, the intermarriage, ew) and it felt very evenly spaced out over time. This new history by Martyn Rady tilts more toward modern history: the seventeenth-century onward, particularly the rather cluster-f*** ending of the empire via Franz Joseph and WWI. Rady also really brings to life the rise of nationalism and the disparate nature of the many different cultures and states that were never truly sewn together into one imperial nation-state, much to the chagrin of many Habsburg rulers. So while I feel like the Wheatcroft is more of a long biography, this new Rady history is more about how the Habsburg family saw itself and how that translated into their successes and failures as sovereigns.

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World is out August 25!

Dear FTC: I requested a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by David O. Dowling

41154985._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A vibrant history of the renowned and often controversial Iowa Writers’ Workshop and its celebrated alumni and faculty

As the world’s preeminent creative writing program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has produced an astonishing number of distinguished writers and poets since its establishment in 1936. Its alumni and faculty include twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners, six U.S. poet laureates, and numerous National Book Award winners. This volume follows the program from its rise to prominence in the early 1940s under director Paul Engle, who promoted the “workshop” method of classroom peer criticism.

Meant to simulate the rigors of editorial and critical scrutiny in the publishing industry, this educational style created an environment of both competition and community, cooperation and rivalry. Focusing on some of the exceptional authors who have participated in the program—such as Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. C. Boyle, and Marilynne Robinson—David Dowling examines how the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has shaped professional authorship, publishing industries, and the course of American literature.

A Delicate Aggression is an interesting read, but a very slow one and one that I feel wasn’t terribly cohesive in the end. I appreciate that Dowling comes from outside the Workshop (I can throw a stone from my office – ok, fine, I would need a slingshot from the roof of my wing of the hospital – and hit Dey House across the river, so this is all very local to me) but the way he chose to spotlight particular individuals during different directors’ tenures didn’t give me a good picture of the Workshop over time, how it changed or stayed the same. My major takeaways were:

  • the Workshop method is WOW, abusive and resistant to experimentation or change
  • it was a hella boys club plus booze, which I think most of us already knew.

I think a reader would need to know about the history of the Workshop already to understand this book, so it isn’t a good entry point.

There were also some obvious people missing although I’m not sure if some authors declined to participate in the interviews or how many declined. Alexander Chee has written about his time at IWW a bit so should have been a good inclusion during the Conroy era and if we’re going to talk about IWW graduates who write successful popular novels with romantic elements, Elin Hilderbrand was suspiciously absent from this narrative, particularly when the last two chapters are about Anthony Swofford and Ayana Mathis.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern by Robert Morrison

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
The Victorians are often credited with ushering in our current era, yet the seeds of change were planted in the years before. The Regency (1811–1820) began when the profligate Prince of Wales—the future king George IV—replaced his insane father, George III, as Britain’s ruler.

Around the regent surged a society steeped in contrasts: evangelicalism and hedonism, elegance and brutality, exuberance and despair. The arts flourished at this time with a showcase of extraordinary writers and painters such as Jane Austen, Lord Byron, the Shelleys, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner. Science burgeoned during this decade, too, giving us the steam locomotive and the blueprint for the modern computer.

Yet the dark side of the era was visible in poverty, slavery, pornography, opium, and the gothic imaginings that birthed the novel Frankenstein. With the British military in foreign lands, fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the War of 1812 in the United States, the desire for empire and an expanding colonial enterprise gained unstoppable momentum. Exploring these crosscurrents, Robert Morrison illuminates the profound ways this period shaped and indelibly marked the modern world.

The Regency Years seems a rather short book to try and cover all the parts of the ten years of the official Regency during end of George III’s life. But it does hit all the highlights, from crime and politics to the arts. The author does provide a critical view of unjust policies regarding the poor, racism, slavery, and colonialism/globalism so it definitely isn’t a “Rah Rah Britain” book. It just didn’t seem to read very easily.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

stuff I read

Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, 1944–1945 by Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke, edited by Helmuth Caspar, Johannes, and Dorothea von Moltke, translated by Shelley Frisch

43437749._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
An NYRB Classics Original

Tegel prison, Berlin, in the fall of 1944. Helmuth James von Moltke is awaiting trial for his leading role in the Kreisau Circle, one of the most important German resistance groups against the Nazis. By a near miracle, the prison chaplain at Tegel is Harald Poelchau, a friend and co-conspirator of Helmuth and his wife, Freya. From Helmuth’s arrival at Tegel in late September 1944 until the day of his execution by the Nazis on January 23, 1945, Poelchau would carry Helmuth’s and Freya’s letters in and out of prison daily, risking his own life. Freya would safeguard these letters for the rest of her long life, much of it spent in Norwich, VT, from 1960 until her death in 2010.

Last Letters is a profoundly personal record of the couple’s love, faith, and courage in the face of fascism. Written during the final months of World War II, the correspondence is at once a collection of love letters written in extremis and a historical document of the first order. Published to great acclaim in Germany, this volume now makes this deeply moving correspondence available for the first time in English.

I read the description of Last Letters in the NYRB Classics catalog and knew immediately that I had to read it. Freya von Moltke had allowed other volumes of letters from her correspondence with her husband Helmuth James to be published during her lifetime but these letters, the very intimate letters exchanged while Helmuth was imprisoned by the Nazis, she only allowed to be published after her death in 2010. They are incredible.

This is not an easy book to read in one go – it’s a collection of letters between a couple that expected almost daily that he would be executed by the Nazis and contain minute details of Helmuth’s defense and Freya’s visits to various officials to try and get Helmuth released, so they do get a repetitive when read all at once, one after the other. But their discussions of faith and love, reminiscences about their children and family, regrets, and heart-felt farewells in each letter are truly moving. Each of these letters was smuggled into and out of Tegel prison by the prison chaplain, a close friend, at risk to his own life (also included here are a few of the “official” letters that Helmuth and Freya exchanged via the usual prison mail route to avoid raising suspicion).

Reading this collection makes one wonder if one could place themselves at risk, knowing the stakes, if in the same situation the von Moltkes and their friends were in during WWII. Would I place my family in danger to deliver these letters? Or even to be a member of a group like the Kreisau Circle? These letters give so much insight into how Helmuth leaned on his faith and prayer, and supported Freya as she struggled with her own faith, during his imprisonment, right up until his execution. His execution date was kept secret so there is no real “end” to the letters, merely a note that Freya’s final letter was not received before Helmuth’s death. This is an incredibly intimate collection of letters. We are so lucky they were preserved.

Last Letters is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

movie star drool · stuff I read

The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy

40640521A definitive history of Hollywood’s most iconic, storied, and scandalous hotel.

For nearly ninety years, Hollywood’s brightest stars have favored the Chateau Marmont as a home away from home. An apartment house-turned-hotel, it has hosted generations of gossip and folklore: 1930s bombshell Jean Harlow took lovers during her third honeymoon there; director Nicholas Ray slept with his sixteen-year-old Rebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood; Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter met poolside and began a secret affair; Jim Morrison swung from the balconies, once falling nearly to his death; John Belushi suffered a fatal overdose in a private bungalow; Lindsay Lohan got the boot after racking up nearly $50,000 in charges in less than two months.

Perched above the Sunset Strip like a fairytale castle, the Chateau seems to come from another world entirely. Its singular appearance houses an equally singular history. While a city, an industry, and a culture have changed around it, Chateau Marmont has welcomed the most iconic and iconoclastic personalities in film, music, and media. It appeals to the rich and famous not just for its European ambiance but for its seclusion: Much of what’s happened inside the Chateau’s walls has eluded the public eye.

Until now. With wit and prowess, Shawn Levy recounts the wild revelries and scandalous liaisons; the creative breakthroughs and marital breakdowns; the births and deaths that the Chateau has been a party to. Vivid, salacious, and richly informed, his book is a glittering tribute to Hollywood as seen from inside the walls of its most hallowed hotel.

The Castle on Sunset is a dishy yet understated history of the famous (infamous?) Chateau Marmont, a landmark hotel overlooking the Sunset Strip. Levy takes the history from bare ground covered in scrub and onions through the building’s beginning as an apartment building, an out-of-the-way hideaway for Hollywood elite needing out of the spotlight, the run-down cheap-chic of the 1970s and 80s, and its reinvention as the playground of the glitzy entertainment industry A-list. There are lots of endnotes and citations but I would have loved more pictures. I’ll have to check a finished copy.

Due out tomorrow!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · movie star drool · stuff I read

Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery

40538583._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
From a veteran culture writer and modern movie expert, a celebration and analysis of the movies of 1999—arguably the most groundbreaking year in American cinematic history.

In 1999, Hollywood as we know it exploded: Fight Club. The Matrix. Office Space. Election. The Blair Witch Project. The Sixth Sense. Being John Malkovich. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. American Beauty. The Virgin Suicides. Boys Don’t Cry. The Best Man. Three Kings. Magnolia. Those are just some of the landmark titles released in a dizzying movie year, one in which a group of daring filmmakers and performers pushed cinema to new limits—and took audiences along for the ride. Freed from the restraints of budget, technology (or even taste), they produced a slew of classics that took on every topic imaginable, from sex to violence to the end of the world. The result was a highly unruly, deeply influential set of films that would not only change filmmaking, but also give us our first glimpse of the coming twenty-first century. It was a watershed moment that also produced The Sopranos; Apple’s Airport; Wi-Fi; and Netflix’s unlimited DVD rentals.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is the story of not just how these movies were made, but how they re-made our own vision of the world. It features more than 130 new and exclusive interviews with such directors and actors as Reese Witherspoon, Edward Norton, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, Nia Long, Matthew Broderick, Taye Diggs, M. Night Shyamalan, David O. Russell, James Van Der Beek, Kirsten Dunst, the Blair Witch kids, the Office Space dudes, the guy who played Jar-Jar Binks, and dozens more. It’s the definitive account of a culture-conquering movie year none of us saw coming…and that we may never see again.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is a readable and very well researched look at some of the most memorable films from 1999 – including The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty (and Pie), Election, Office Space, The Phantom Menace, to name only a few – and how the culture and media of the late 90s and the end of the 20th century spoke to these films and filmmakers. Raftery interviewed a lot of people whose careers were made in the late 1990s so there’s more of an intimacy than if it were just a book of researched facts. He also contrasted 1999 with 1969 (the “Raging Bulls, Easy Rider” film year) and 2019. A fun read for film fans. 1999 was my junior-senior year in college and I think I saw most of the movies profiled in this book either during 1999 or in the next year or two.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London by Claire Harman

40909430Summary from Goodreads:
From the acclaimed biographer–the fascinating, little-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, leading Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Queen Victoria herself to wonder: Can a novel kill?

In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London’s highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell’s valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales–Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William’s murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

I enjoyed Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë so I was tickled to see Murder by the Book come up in the catalogs. It is a delightful mashup of true crime and my favorite genre, books about books. Harman gets at the class worries of upper class early-Victorian London with the grisly murder of a harmless old man (in the ways of British aristocracy, Lord William Russell was pretty innocuous) by his valet (GASP). In among the description of the crime and investigation is a discussion of the unbelievably popular Newgate novels romanticizing criminals’ exploits, particularly that of Jack Sheppard, which has many echoes today in the fraught discussion of the effect of violent and/or radicalized media on consumers. Harman perhaps should have left off the “I shall try to suss out what really happened” epilogue since it’s pretty thin and doesn’t add much to the book.

Murder by the Book is out today in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.